Originally published December 2011. Compared to the Impressionists, Paul Gauguin was something of a wild card. His painting career was preceded by stints in the merchant marines and the financial sector. Then, rather than paint flowers in rural France, he trotted off to the South Pacific.

Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, on display from February 9 through April 29 at Seattle Art Museum downtown, traces the rich relationship between the 19th-century artist and his adopted country. The exhibit’s a near-even split: almost 60 pieces by Gauguin, 60 by Polynesians. Gauguin’s own fascination with ethnographic art started early, so some works in the show make references to Breton folk culture and date back to before his first South Pacific trip in 1891. “He was always looking for something raw and authentic…primordial and basic and real,” says SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa.

Before he went tropical, the artist toyed with forming a kind of hippie art commune with his painting buddy, Vincent Van Gogh. But, says Ishikawa, Van Gogh’s “ethic of self denial” didn’t mesh with Gauguin, who “wanted to eat everything and take advantage of everything and impregnate everybody.” So the hedonist was off to Tahiti.

The French territory wasn’t exactly the virgin paradise he sought. Gauguin was bummed to see the “bourgeois trappings” of Western dress, says Ishikawa. “His idea of paradise as a free place of flowers, where you can pluck the fruit from the trees? That went out the window quickly.” In his portraits, young women have melancholic expressions, a stark contrast to the bright colors of the lush island.

A century later, his works may have steamrolled local style; Google “Tahitian art” and it’s mostly Gauguins and bare-breasted knockoffs. But in SAM’s show, dozens of elaborate carvings and ornamental jewelry show off the Tahitian, Marquesan, and Maori styles that inspired the troubled artist. In the tour’s only U.S. stop, the museum shows off not merely the dissatisfied Frenchman who craved authenticity, but the paradise lost that was so hard for him to find.

View the slideshow for a preview of the exhibit. Photo captions by Laura Dannen.

Gauguin and Polynesia: A Elusive Paradise
Feb 9–Apr 29, Seattle Art Museum
When the museum opens at 10am on Feb 9, the first 100 people wearing sunshine yellow get in free.

In the Studio with Hotel 1000: A Curator-Led Talk on Gauguin and Polynesia
Feb 15, 5–6:30pm, Hotel 1000

Show Comments